Finding out our family history

PUBLISHED ON: 22 June 2015

Tamsin and Claire

Half-sisters Tamsin Sargeant and Claire Pike might never have met if it wasn’t for the results of a genetic test for breast cancer.

Tamsin was 40 when she found out she had breast cancer. Towards the end of a year of treatment – including surgery and chemotherapy – Tamsin’s oncologist asked about her family history.

‘We talked about me being referred to a genetics clinic,’ says Tamsin. ‘I agreed and was given a long questionnaire about my family history. I contacted my father – who I’m not in touch with and didn’t grow up with – so I could fill in the form.’

Tamsin’s genetic counsellor advised that she was at low risk of having an altered gene but asked her if she would take part in a research study. The study looked for new genetic mutations in people who’d had breast cancer, and also involved testing for known breast cancer genes.

After a 12-month wait, Tamsin returned for the results. She found out she had the BRCA1 altered gene. Tamsin opted to have a risk-reducing double mastectomy. But tests showed her breast cancer had returned. This meant having more chemotherapy.

Finding out about the BRCA1 gene and that her cancer had returned was ‘just devastating’, says Tamsin. ‘I felt alone and frightened. I focused on making sure I was as well as I could be to manage the challenges. It was important to create a sense of normality for my family.’

Waiting in the wings

Tamsin had never spoken to half-sister Claire. But after Tamsin’s first diagnosis, their biological father contacted Claire’s mother. By the time Tamsin was due to get her genetic test results, she had Claire’s email address. ‘I was very aware of Claire waiting in the wings to find out the results of my test,’ says Tamsin.

Claire had also had several appointments with a genetic counsellor. And when Tamsin tested positive for BRCA1, Claire chose to have the test too. ‘I needed to know so I could make a proper decision about what to do,’ says Claire.

After a six-week wait, Claire found out that she too had the BRCA1 gene. ‘It was a bit of a shock, but it wasn’t a complete surprise,’ she says.

Claire planned to have regular screening, an option for people at high risk of breast cancer. But after the news that Tamsin’s breast cancer had returned, she opted to have risk-reducing surgery.

‘I’m a worrier,’ says Claire. ‘I thought it wouldn’t do me any good to worry about it every day. It felt like too much of a risk.’

Giving support to others

Tamsin and Claire are now in regular contact and get together occasionally. ‘Developing a relationship with Claire is one positive thing that has come out of everything,’ says Tamsin. Claire believes Tamsin was a great support when she was having her own surgery.

The half-sisters now support other people in their situation as volunteers with Someone Like Me, Breast Cancer Care’s one-to-one support service.

‘Dealing with cancer is difficult enough,’ says Tamsin. ‘But with the added issue of family history, I found myself in a very isolated position.’

Tamsin wanted to speak to other women with an altered gene who’d had breast cancer. Now she’s available to anyone else who wants to talk.

Claire is also eager to support others in her position. ‘It’s something positive that has come out of a difficult situation,’ she says.

If you'd like to speak to someone who's been in your position, find out more about Someone Like Me, call 0345 077 1893 or email someonelikeme@breastcancercare.org.uk